GWINNETT COUNTY, Ga. — From booming town centers to ghost towns, it has been a dramatic fall for big shopping malls here in Georgia and around the country.
About a dozen malls are struggling in metro Atlanta from the Mall of Georgia to Crossroads Mall in Conyers.
But there are efforts to reenergize Georgia’s once mighty shopping centers, and you might see some of the prime examples tried here.
“The only reason I like going is to look around see what I can find,” said shopper Josefa Almazan.
She, like many shoppers these days, doesn’t exactly make a beeline to malls for a bunch of reasons.
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“A lot of my peers personally have stopped coming here because of the safety issue,” said shopper Abby Sirakoulis.
Channel 2 found Sirakoulis heading into one of the last remaining open stores at what used to be Gwinnett Place Mall.
The county purchased the property with plans to redevelop the area. Inside, it’s a creepy ghost land with empty storefronts, damaged ceilings, and acres of empty parking lots.
“It just makes me sad. It’s just a shell of its former glory,” said Joe Allen the Executive Director of the Gwinnett Place Community Improvement District.
The fall of the 1980s mall was quick. During the Christmas season in 1998 Channel 2 found wall to wall people. But by 2001, shoppers were noticing a difference and one said, “It wasn’t crowded here.”
Gwinnett Place isn’t alone. From Northlake to Sugarloaf Mills to even high-end places like Lenox Square, the struggle is real.
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“How is the Atlanta mall scene right now?” asked Channel 2′s Tony Thomas.
“Everyone is being adversely impacted right now. The least is probably Perimeter Mall,” said KC Conway who runs Red Shoe Economics, a commercial real estate forecasting firm.
“Two things converging, Amazon and the housing crisis really destroyed retail. Retail will never come back like this again,” Conway said.
So what does come in? There are a few examples across the country that Conway and other experts said are proving old malls can be turned into economic powerhouses once again.
One is right in our own backyard – Northlake in Tucker. When it fell on hard times Corinth Properties stepped in and is spending upwards of $100 million redesigning it.
It’s not your Auntie Anne’s and Mrs. Fields type of place anymore. There will still be retail and restaurants, but Emory Healthcare has become a major tenant.
“We envision Northlake will become largely a job center. This is no longer Northlake mall, it’s Northlake,” said Tony Ruggeri, a partner with Corinth Properties.
“People want a different experience. They want to be indoor-outdoor,” said Frank Mihalopoulos, also a partner with Corinth Properties.
Corinth has done that before just up the road in Nashville at One Hundred Oaks.
Vanderbilt Health leases about half the space providing a built-in clientele to keep the shops and restaurants full. The once-dead mall is now vibrant day and night.
“What’s the biggest mistake a lot of places like this make?” asked Thomas.
“I think number one, they think they can bring retail back,” Conway said.
“What does Joe Allen want to see come in here?” asked Thomas.
“I want to see the mall demolished and out of the ashes we need a cool place,” Allen said.
Leaders in Gwinnett County are taking note. They are touring malls across the country trying to figure out what works.
They’ve gone to Denver and looked at the Belmar Mall in Lakewood, an open-air facility, and the Streets of SouthGlenn, a wildly popular mixed-use facility.
“They’ve got apartments, they’ve got condos, they’ve got housing, they’ve got groceries, they’ve got restaurants and they’ve tried to make it pretty walkable,” Conway said.
Gwinnett officials are continuing their nationwide tour with plans to visit malls in Seattle. They’ve also flown to Houston, New York, Austin and San Diego.
“What are you looking forward to most?” Thomas asked.
“I’m looking forward to seeing people in this location again,” Allen said.
“Maybe if they made it a little safer and brought in more shops it could be better,” said shopper Abby Sirakoulis.
Of the 1,200 to 1,300 malls in existence today, many experts predict only 200 to 300 will survive.
In Gwinnett, officials are in an information gathering stage holding community meetings.
Actual changes could be millions of dollars and years away.
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